What is the Hunger Fullness Scale for Kids?

You may have gotten used to constantly haggling, bribing, or pre-portioning your kids’ food to get them to eat more food, or less food, or the right food. This can be frustrating.

There is a better way!

You can learn to trust your kids to eat the amount that feels best to them. That is the amount their body needs at that given moment. Appetites change all the time, based on current growth & development, activity level, amount of food eaten recently, and so much more.

Teaching your kids to recognize their hunger and fullness signals is an important tool for building a good relationship with food and body and can minimize the stress around eating.

Read on to learn how.

What is the hunger fullness scale?

Hunger and fullness exist on a continuum. Kids don’t go from super stuffed straight to starving (though it may feel that way sometimes!). There is a gradual feeling of full to empty, and empty to full. This can be visualized as a linear scale from one to ten, with 1 being the hungriest, and 10 being the fullest.

Each person may experience their hunger and fullness differently and rate their numbers differently too. That’s totally normal! You are the expert of your body, and your sensations are valid and deserve to be respected.

Feel free to adjust the scale to reflect your body’s experience. However, this scale may highlight some signs you haven’t recognized as signs of hunger or fullness and may help you become more in tune with your body’s signals. Hunger Fullness Scale for Kids rating from one-super hungry, to ten- super stuffed

  1. Painfully hungry- dizziness, nausea, feeling physically ill
  2. Extremely hungry- irritable (“hangry”), headache
  3. Very hungry- low energy, trouble focusing, stomach growling
  4. Hungry- thinking about food, feeling ready to eat
  5. Neutral
  6. Mild fullness- not yet satisfied
  7. Comfortable fullness- satisfied and content
  8. A little too full- not quite pleasant and slightly uncomfortable
  9. Very full- stuffed and uncomfortable
  10. Painfully full- nausea, feeling physically ill

While I have included signs of fullness, the more important side to focus on is the signs of hunger. So many kids and teens are unaware of their feelings of hunger, resulting in eating either when they’re not hungry, or getting overly hungry. The latter can result in feeling negatively physically and emotionally, and overeating when they do eat.  

Why is it important for kids to recognize their hunger & fullness?

Kids are generally born knowing when they’re hungry and full. This allows them to eat the amount they need to fuel their growth and development. They instinctively know what food they need for energy and in what quantities. However, looking on from outside it may not look that way and you may be inclined to interfere with what you believe is best for them.

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Allowing kids to eat according to their hunger and fullness gives them body autonomy, they learn to trust themselves and build self-esteem, and they eat the amount they truly need, rather than what you think they need.

Losing atonement to these signals

There are many ways kids can be distanced from feeling these signals.

Restriction

When kids don’t have access to a food, they feel restricted. When they eventually get access to this food, perhaps at a friend’s home, purchased with their own money, or it’s sporadically brought in the home, they often lose control around the food. So rather than eating the amount that feels good to them, they eat an excess amount. They’re no longer eating in response to their hunger or fullness- they’re eating in response to the restriction.

Grazing

Constant eating, or grazing, distances kids from their feelings of hunger. Rather than develop a full sense of hunger, they turn to food at the first sign of discomfort- whether it’s boredom, emotional distress, or hunger. It’s like charging your phone as soon as it reaches 85% (not calling out anyone who does this. And definitely NOT making any technological recommendations about phone-best practice!)

Distracted Eating

Eating while watching TV, scrolling on the phone, or using a tablet can interfere with kids recognizing their fullness. When distracted, kids don’t feel when they’re getting full because they’re not focusing on eating. They’re engrossed in the screen and eating mindlessly, stopping only when the food is finished, or the show is over.

Medications

Many medications interfere with appetite. They may increase or suppress hunger.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders and concerns

Whether they have a clinical diagnosis or not, mental health concerns and feeling emotions can interfere with appetite.

Lacking interoceptive awareness

Some kids are not able to recognize their body’s physical feelings, including hunger and fullness. There are exercises to help kids learn this skill. Occupational Therapists are a great resource for helping your child get in tune with their bodily feelings and sensations.

Getting back in tune to feeling hunger and fullness

If you read the above list with mounting guilt, don’t despair. It’s possible to help your kids get back in tune with those feelings and start recognizing their body’s cues.

Eating Schedules

A schedule of eating every 2-4 hours (depending on the age of your kids) allows kids to develop their hunger, and then recognize their fullness as they eat. Read this post to learn why your kids need scheduled meals.

Family Style Meals

Allow kids to serve themselves. They know how much of each food they need to meet their current hunger. It may take practice as they learn to trust their body and tune into their body’s needs, but that only happens when they’re allowed to practice. Pre-plating meals can be overwhelming if there’s too much food, judgmental if not enough food, and disempowering. Make meals pleasant and stress free with these tips!  

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Permission to Eat

Allow for multiple portions (if food is available). This removes the feeling of restriction and gives kids the ability to eat the amount they need. Kids are growing and developing, and while that may not be visible, their nutritional needs are high, and they need more food than you might think.

Removing Shame and Guilt Around Eating

Restriction can take the form of emotional restriction, where kids are allowed to eat what they need, but feel guilt or shame for doing so. Negative emotions from eating results in kids feeling bad for having eaten and resolving to eat less in the future. That plan for restricting has the same affect as actual restriction, in that kids are no longer in control of their eating. Make eating a neutral experience, help your kids remove negative feelings from food, and neutrally tune into how their body feels after eating.

How to use this scale

Use this scale as a way to help your kids check in and tune into their physical feelings. You can do this before or during a meal and snack, and/or randomly during the day. Just a quick check-in can help kids learn to recognize subtle body cues that help them develop a good relationship with their body.

How NOT to use this scale

Some things to look out for as you and your kids start using this tool.  

Avoid judgement

This is a tool to help kids recognize their body’s signals. There are not better or worse numbers to be at. When you’re feeling anxious that your child is eating “too much” at a meal isn’t the time to broach this discussion. Getting super hungry or super stuffed is not bad and shouldn’t be cause for judgement or negative feelings. Approach it with curiosity and see what prompted the behaviour.

Do not make this into the hunger-fullness diet

There are many reasons we eat, and it’s not always about being hungry. When choosing to eat, and deciding how much to eat, we don’t have to be in the neutral zone. Do not make this into a new rule-based way of eating. There is no perfect way of eating, so make sure to model that belief to your kids.

Times to ignore hunger and fullness

There are many times kids need to eat even when they’re not hungry. This may be due to scheduling- practical eating, to prevent getting super hungry later, social eating, or lacking appetite.

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Practical Eating

There are times it’s not practical to wait to feel hunger, and kids need to eat regardless. This is especially the case during school, when there are specific times to eat and other times they’re not allowed to eat.

Eating breakfast even if kids aren’t “morning eaters” is important so they have energy to start their day and focus on school.

They may not be hungry at snack or lunch time, but if those are the times they’re able to eat, and won’t be able to when they feel hungry, they need to eat at those times they can. Kids need to eat a lot to fuel their growth. They can’t do that if they only eat a few times a day. Plus, the body prefers having consistent and reliable food.

Social Eating

Kids eat for many reasons other than hunger, including social eating such as class parties and eating when they hang out with friends. These interactions are so important for development. Kids should participate and not worry that they’re eating without feeling physically hungry. They may decide to eat only the amount that feels good, but that doesn’t have to be their focus.

Lacking Appetite  

There are many reasons kids may lack an appetite. If they’re feeling sick or it’s a short-term issue, that can be respected and you can let their appetite lead their eating. If they’ve had no appetite for a while, such as lacking interoceptive awareness or being on medication, hunger signs won’t be the way to decide when and what to eat. Eating on a schedule, regardless of hunger, is necessary to ensure kids are eating enough to sustain their growth and activity.

Conclusion

Trusting kids to eat appropriately for their growth and development needs can be difficult. Teaching them to recognize their feelings of hunger and fullness can help you feel more confident and gives them an important skill.

While many kids are born recognizing their hunger and fullness cues, they can easily lose touch with them by being restricted from food, grazing throughout the day, eating with distractions, medications, or lacking interoceptive awareness.

 You can help re-establish these signals with scheduled eating, family-style meals, and removing guilt and shame around eating.

Use the hunger fullness scale as a learning tool, but don’t make it into the hunger-fullness diet!

Eating when not hungry is often necessary and may be beneficial. Eating should be enjoyable and free, not rule based. There’s no goal of “perfect eating”.